"Moving Beyond the 'Cuba Cliche' and Getting to the Real Cuba" at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books repeats at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds will speak about Cuba with travel writer Catherine Watson. Look for Booth 47, also named the California Pavilion, on the corner of Trousdale Parkway and Downey Way at the festival at USC. The event is free.
For many Americans, Cuba is a mystery, a forbidden place that until now has been difficult to reach.
The small California Pavilion Stage at the Festival of Books on Saturday was packed with people eager to talk about Cuba now that President Obama has opened the door for us to peek in.
On Saturday, Times Assistant Managing Editor Alice Short, who recently visited Cuba, sat down with Catherine Watson, who has traveled to the island nation as a journalist several times since 1999.
Watson said she stopped going in 2003 because “it was just too sad to find so many bright, educated people who couldn’t get out.”
She has returned to Cuba since relations have been partially re-established. Obama in January eased rules for Americans who want to travel to Cuba, and last week removed the country from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
Short says she fulfilled her Cold War childhood dream to visit Cuba this winter and traveled on an educational tour, which is one way Americans can visit Cuba legally. (There are 12 accepted reasons that Americans may go to Cuba under U.S. regulations.)
Short said she wanted to make sure that she could visit before the first Starbucks arrived, and, once there, was told that it may not be as soon as people think. One of her guides said their banking and credit system is not what large American corporations are used to and wasn’t sure the government wants to see an influx of American companies.
"Havana has an historic preservation office that is the strongest anywhere in the world," Watson said. "You can’t repair your building, even if you own it, unless the office approves it. I think the Cubans, [who] fought the revolution and suffered all this time, they’re not going to get rid of everything.”
Cleve Ford, a travel consultant in the audience, said in the Q&A part of the panel that Cuba is changing rapidly. Ford also pointed out that the musical center of Cuba is in Santiago.
Watson said she always appreciated walking into the streets of Cuba and “walking into pools of music. Music is everywhere.”
Food, however, is a more "quiet" affair, Short said.
Traveling as a journalist, Watson has never gone to Cuba on a tour. She has, however, stayed in people’s homes, where the lack of spices and ingredients makes meals bland. The best dining experience she had on her last visit was in a Russian restaurant called Nostrovia, where Cuban Russian descendants prepare the food.
Both journalists mentioned how humbling it is to meet the people of Cuba and see how much they are able to do with so little. Watson said she never perceived any animosity from Cubans because she was an American. "They’re aware of us in a way that we are not aware of them."
Short also said she was mesmerized by the preserved architecture, although many streets are “torn up, but there is no trash.” She also visited organic farms that are connected to restaurants where the produce was better.
As far as the three cliches -- yes, rum, cigars and the cars -- are there but it’s really the people who will impress travelers.
Some things to know about traveling to Cuba: Credit cards are allowed but still not widely used, so carry cash. It may also help to know it is not the State Department that overseas regulations for travel to Cuba, but the Treasury Department.
Airbnb recently started listing home stays in Cuba for Americans who want to visit. And travel website CheaAir sells tickets online for those who want to go.